Perhaps just as significantly, it was a conference win, which was their first against a Pac-10 team since a 16-13 double-overtime win against Washington in 2008. The victory snapped a 16-game conference losing streak for the Cougars (2-9 overall, 1-7 league).
Free at last.
WSU defensive coordinator Chris Ball’s voice trembled with emotion as he spoke about the win during a postgame radio interview. Ball previously coached the secondary under former Cougars coach Mike Price from 2001-03.
“It just validates what they’ve been working for,” he said. “We’ve always said the hardest thing would be teaching them how to win. I feel great for our coaches, our school and fans. It’s been really hard.”
It also was the first road victory in Paul Wulff’s three-year tenure at WSU and possibly a “signature win.” Since taking over the program, Wulff said his team would show progress each season. After his first two seasons mostly included blowouts, the Cougars have come close to earning Pac-10 wins at UCLA and last week against California.
“We finally figured out how to finish a win,” sophomore defensive end Travis Long said during a postgame interview. “We came close early in the season, but we couldn’t close it out.”
That breakthrough was Saturday, with Jeff Tuel leading the way with his hands and his feet. He passed for 157 yards and rushed for another 79, despite suffering a blow to the head that knocked him out of the game for two series late in the first half.
WSU dominated statistically as it outgained the Beavers 378-261. That showed repeatedly on the defensive side where the Cougars, who earned their first win against OSU since 2006, repeatedly stopped their opponent, most importantly on fourth-and-3 with the Beavers at their own 38. But Jordan Bishop could not catch Ryan Katz's pass on fourth-and-3 with 4 minutes, 47 seconds left in the game, and WSU scored six plays later on a 5-yard carry by senior running back Chantz Staden to end the scoring.
“Oregon State knows Washington State is going to run,” Fox Sports Northwest analyst Jason Stiles said. “That just shows heart.”
BEFORE WSU TOOK the field, a graphic displayed its offensive woes during the last two weeks when the Cougars combined for just 13 points. But sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel and the offense looked nothing like that during the first 30 minutes.
After juniors Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Aire Justin combined to stop Jacquizz Rodgers on fourth-and-one at the Cougars’ 48-yard line, Tuel immediately found senior wide receiver Daniel Blackledge for a 26-yard gain. WSU then used six running plays — highlighted by a 16-yard scramble by Tuel — before junior Logwone Mitz scored on a 1-yard run to put the Cougars ahead 7-0 early in the second quarter.
Then it was the defense’s turn — twice — to contain the Beavers. After forcing a three-and-out that was highlighted by two sacks, the Cougars made a pair of critical mistakes. They ran into Johnny Hecker on his punt attempt, which automatically would have given OSU a first down, if Justin had not fumbled the punt return. That gave the Beavers possession at WSU’s 24. But OSU (4-5, 3-3) was unable to move the ball and kicker Justin Kahut’s 35-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
Wulff, who talked throughout the week about the significance of Blackledge returning from a concussion, saw his receiver catch a 33-yard pass from Tuel for a first down at the Beavers’ 31. Tuel nearly connected with Blackledge, who had 76 yards on four receptions, again on the ensuing play as it appeared the latter was bumped by Anthony Watkins before the ball arrived. Wulff stormed onto the field to berate the officials when no flag was thrown.
“You look at this team — the character is changing,” Wulff said during a halftime radio interview. “These guys are fighting every week.”
It appeared the non-call might cost the Cougars points until a Tuel scramble on third-and-11 went for 19 yards down to OSU’s 13. Tuel routinely took advantage of the Beavers’ inability to contain him — he had a team-high 79 yards on 18 carries — but it was not without risk. Two plays later, Tuel left the game after a hit by Jordan Poyer on a scramble down to the Beavers’ 1. Junior Marshall Lobbestael entered the game, and after an unsuccessful run, senior running back James Montgomery scored on a carry to extend WSU’s lead to 14-0.
“It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve seen the offense and defense play at a high level,” radio color commentator and former WSU coach Jim Walden said during halftime. “Good defense generally leads to good offense.”
Justin finished that thought when he intercepted Ryan Katz to preserve the first-half shut out. It was the first time the Beavers were held scoreless in the opening half at home since they suffered a 49-7 loss against California on Oct. 2, 2004.
The Cougars offense looked just as efficient to open the second half as they continued to convert on third down. They did that twice — and were successful on 10 of 17 third downs — on their drive before Tuel, who returned after passing a concussion test, eluded pressure and found true freshman Marquess Wilson for a 33-yard touchdown pass to give WSU a 21-0 lead with 10 minutes, 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
BUT WULFF WAS not about to become conservative. The Cougars attempted an onside kick, which was recovered by senior Hallston Higgins, but they were not able to capitalize as Tuel later was striped by Lance Mitchell to give OSU possession at WSU’s 41. The Beavers needed just three plays to score when Katz hit Markus Wheaton for a 25-yard touchdown pass.
The Cougars’ offense responded again, though. WSU, which had nearly a 21-minute time-of-possession advantage, used a 16-play drive that lasted 8:20 before true freshman Andrew Furney converted a 37-yard field goal. That put the Cougars ahead 24-7 with 13:32 left in the game.
Winning at Reser rarely is easy, though. Even though OSU had 28 consecutive losing seasons from 1971-98, it held a 22-20 advantage against the Cougars in Corvallis entering the game. Those challenges became apparent when the Beavers went for it on fourth-and-7 at their own 47. But Katz found Orting High School product Joe Halahuni for an 18-yard reception. OSU later scored on an 11-yard pass from Katz to Wheaton to cut its deficit to 24-14 with 9:50 remaining.
That was as close as the Beavers would come, though. And in his postgame radio interview, Wulff already was looking toward the Dec. 4 regular-season finale against Washington. Even with consecutive byes, Wulff said there will be plenty of scrimmaging to keep his team prepared as it looks to earn consecutive conference wins for the first time since 2006.
“You see a lot of teams come off byes and not play well,” he said. “We’ve got to treat it like a bowl game.”
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME: Bishop failed to catch a fourth-down pass from Katz with less than five minutes left. The Cougars led 24-14 at that point.
CATCH OF THE GAME: Blackledge's 26-yard reception helped set up the Cougars' first touchdown and established early momentum.
STAT OF THE GAME: WSU converted 10 of 17 third downs that extended several drives and led to a huge time-of-possession advantage.
MISLEADING STAT OF THE GAME: The Beavers had 261 yards of total offense, but most of that paltry amount came late in the contest.
LEADING TACKLERS: Justin and Hoffman-Ellis each had five.
NEXT GAME: The Cougars close out the season Dec. 4 against Washington.